In a revealing admission, President Barack Obama said today he was directing U.S. intelligence agencies to begin to do something many had assumed they were already doing: "[A]ssigning specific responsibility for investigating all leads on high priority threats so that these leads are pursued and acted upon aggressively."
"That is a shock because we had such a follow-up system when I was there," said Richard Clarke, the White House counter-terrorism director in the Clinton and Bush administrations. Clarke, who worked on the Obama transition team, is now an ABC News consultant.
The President said he would hold his staff accountable but said no one person was responsible or would be fired. "Ultimately the buck stops with me," the President said.
In announcing his review of the failures that allowed a "known terrorist" to board a flight to Detroit with a bomb on Christmas Day, the President said there was "a failure to connect the dots of intelligence that existed across our intelligence community."
The review found that "no single component of the counter-terrorism community assumed responsibility for the threat reporting and followed it through."
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was apprehended on Christmas after allegedly attempting to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. After the incident, Abdulmutallab's father revealed that he had contacted U.S. officials in Nigeria and warned them that his 23-year-old son had extreme views and might pose a threat to the U.S.
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that U.S. authorities had plans to question Abdulmutallab when he landed in Detroit because of State Department concerns about extremist ties.
Among the key shortcomings in intelligence that the President cited in his speech were a lack of follow-up by the various intelligence agencies and a failure to confront the growing threat posted by Yemen's al Qaeda offshoot, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The review singled out the National Counterterrorism Center and the CIA for criticism, saying they had failed to search all databases for information about Abdulmutallab.
It also noted that the State Department initially failed to realize Abdulmutallab had a valid U.S. visa because his name was misspelled.
However, the President specifically denied that a failure to share information had allowed Abdulmutallab to slip through the net. "Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence," said the President, "this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that was already there."
After 9/11, the intelligence community was criticized for a failure to share information across agencies. The National Counterterrorism Center was formed after 9/11 expressly to address this lack of communication.
In a briefing after the President's remarks, counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said he had personally let the president down.
Brennan said that the intelligence and law enforcement community had done a "stellar" job over the past year. "It was in this one instance that we did not rise to that same level of competence and success."
Brennan said the president had told him he must do better. Said Brennan, "I told him that I will do better and we will do better as a team."
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